IN 1985, Americans hailed the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva as proof of improving US-Soviet relations after several years of deep-freeze. Considering where US-Soviet relations were 10 years ago, it's worth questioning the hand-wringing over President Yeltsin's alleged ''snub'' of Deputy US Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in Moscow recently.
Russia is an emerging democracy, with stress on emerging. Democracies share several characteristics: They have opposition parties that disagree with the government. This opposition has access to the media and is allowed to state its views. These views are often stated with a little less caution than are government pronouncements. Governments that want to stay in power have to keep an ear to their domestic constituencies.
So why should it surprise anyone that there are now multiple political voices in Russia, and that in the political din, there will be articulate statements of the anti-Western and anti-American views that some of the actors deeply hold?
Russians are a proud and sensitive people. The cold-war defeat deeply distresses some of them. Many Russians profoundly feel the loss of superpower status and Russia's inability to be a player in a traditional backyard, the Balkans. Overrun at least three times in the last two centuries by Western Europeans, most Russians feel they have a right to be nervous about NATO, an alliance that they (wrongly) believe exists mainly to oppose Russia. Their chief worry: that NATO is extending its boundaries. They don't like being on the outside looking in.
Mr. Yeltsin's unfortunate comments about NATO expansion fanning ''a flame of war'' are certainly a reaction to edgy Russian public opinion. But US diplomats do not believe this irritation is a repudiation of the Yeltsin administration's commitment to economic reform or to close ties with the West. They are also convinced that in Bosnia, Russia shares the Western powers' view that a military solution is not possible and that peaceful negotiations among the warring parties is the way to go.
Yeltsin's opposition will pick at any issue where it thinks Yeltsin is not defending Russia's interests. Political opponents of President Clinton, Prime Minister Major, and Chancellor Kohl daily do the same.
But US officials say there's a difference between Yeltsin's deeds and statements put out for domestic consumption: He's kept Andrei Kozyrev engaged on Bosnia; plans for an October summit meeting with Clinton proceed; and he has vetoed legislation that would unilaterally lift the arms embargo on the Serbs (Senator Dole, please note).
NATO has announced it will admit some former Warsaw Pact members, probably Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary first. But that's not going to happen tomorrow; the process will take several years. That's ample time for NATO to help Russians understand that the Alliance means them no harm and that its expansion does not damage Russian interests. Frequent meetings and joint exercises with the Russian military through the Partnership for Peace program and ample sharing of information would help.
NATO and the United States can do a lot to bolster that evolution. But panicking about the state of US-Russian relations every time there's a bump in the road isn't going to help. Viewed as a whole, those relations continue to be good. Compared with 10 years ago, they're almost fraternal.
Compared with 10 years ago, US-Russian relations are almost fraternal.